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Chicago-based novelist, Rebecca Makkai tells us about the art of short stories, reality television and her debut novel.

Not many of us know how good it feels to finish writing a novel. And even fewer of us will know what it's like to finish writing a novel that is widely praised. However, Chicago-based writer, Rebecca Makkai does and she is enjoying the moment. "I'm finally able to introduce myself as a writer," she happily states. "Before, if I had the courage, people would invariably say, 'What would I have read of yours?' And I was left going, 'Well, that depends how many university-based literary magazines with circulations of 300 you subscribe to.'" But Makkai is selling herself short if she thinks her work previous to her debut novel, The Borrower, is too obscure to find. In fact, we first heard her reading one of her short-stories, "The November Story," on the award-winning radio show, This American Life. We were immediately hooked by her prose and decided to pick her brain.

What inspired you to write from the point-of-view of a reality television producer in "The November Story"?

A few years ago I became obsessed with the taped interviews on reality shows, where one person is facing the camera, speaking in full sentences in the present tense. As a writer I compulsively analyze speech patterns, and there was just something so off about those dialogues that were pretending to be monologues. I found it like listening to one end of a phone conversation and trying to imagine the other side. I eventually realized I needed to write a story about the people who conduct those interviews. The story actually appeared first in a literary journal called Crazyhorse, and it had to be chopped down quite a lot to fill the eighteen-minute time slot on This American Life.

Read more of our Q + A with Rebecca Makkai below.

How do you feel about reality television and the role it plays in contemporary entertainment?

I find a lot of it (“The Real Housewives,” the dating shows, and the following-stage-mothers-around-while-they-teach-their-three-year-olds-to-belly-dance shows) annoying and exploitative. But I do love the talent-based competitions like the one in “The November Story.” Even though they’re not representing reality, they give us insight into a creative process we might otherwise never appreciate. The dichotomy, for me, is that some unscripted shows devalue art by their very existence – the message being, we don’t need writers or actors – and others, by focusing on the creation of art, help us appreciate it more.

Do you watch reality television?

It would be useless to deny it at this point. I love Project Runway, Top Chef and Work of Art because they let me think about my own creative process without stressing directly about writing. (Although I can’t stand American Idol, probably because we hardly see that process – only the performance.) And I love the shows like Storage Wars and (the one exception to my hatred of dating shows, as well as my guiltiest pleasure) Millionaire Matchmaker, because they take me into the world of a job I’ll never, ever have.

In "The November Story" your protagonist is a lesbian reality television producer. In your debut novel, "The Borrower." it's a librarian who runs away with a child. How do you invent your characters?

In college and for a few years after, I wrote so many autobiographical stories that I completely burned out on them and will probably never write another again. I love creating a character entirely different from myself – different job, different life situation, different viewpoint – and trying to get inside his or her head. I’ve heard someone refer to that as “ventriloquistic writing,” which is probably as good a term as any. What’s funny is that people often take those characters as the real me. After “The November Story” aired, I got a lot of emails from people who thought it was nonfiction. Several reviews of my novel have referred to me as a librarian.

In "The Borrower" your protagonist is a librarian. Why a librarian? Why this dynamic between child and literary provider?

I knew I wanted to write a story about a child who’s been put in what is euphemistically called “reparative therapy” – otherwise known as “pray the gay away.” I was fascinated and deeply disturbed by the question of what would happen to a child in the middle of his development when the people closest to him told him everything he felt in his core was just wrong. That gave me the characters of the parents and the child, but no story is interesting without a triangle. I needed a third party, someone with a very different point of view, to get involved. I thought initially of a teacher, but I wanted the child to run away and I knew he wouldn’t run away to school. I decided she would be a librarian and he would be the very bookish kind of child to whom sleeping in a library would sound like heaven. It was a resonant connection, one that suggested to me all sorts of things about the books that connect us to the world, as well as about the stories we tell each other and ourselves.

What attracted you to the setting of the library?

To me they’re magical places, whether they’re cavernous and ancient or just the third floor of an elementary school. There’s that hush and stillness, but also the sense of infinite possibility.

How did you know when your story was complete?

It wasn’t so much a matter of knowing it was done as deciding I would sit down and finish it. From start to end I worked on it for about ten years, but there were several times in there that I abandoned it for more than a year. It wasn’t that I didn’t believe in the story, but that I didn’t have the confidence that I could ever publish anything. That makes it hard to budget huge blocks of your time for a project, especially once you have children. As my stories kept getting published, though, and chosen for anthologies, I realized this could happen and I had to go for it.

How is the writing/development process different from story-stories to novels?

It’s probably similar to the difference between painting a small portrait versus a mural. The challenge with the novel is that you can’t step back and view it all at once, and it’s hard to keep track of every character and detail. The plot of my second novel is complex and twisted, so I’ve made about sixty pages of notes just to keep track of it all.

How do you balance your life as a Montessori teacher, mother, short-story writer and novelist?

I get the feeling that I’ll look back in twenty years and wonder what in the hell I was thinking, and how this was all possible. All I can say is that I’ve gone to part-time this year in my teaching career, and I have a very supportive husband and a mother who lives nearby and is willing to take care of my daughters on an almost daily basis. Beyond that, I’m running on steam.

What makes a good writer?

First and foremost, you can’t be a good writer unless you’ve already been a good reader for a very long time. And besides the obvious skills – a way with words, an overactive imagination, the ability to use a comma, the ability to tell a compelling story – I do think you need a lot of empathy. Empathy both for your characters and for the reader: you need to be able to imagine her experience of the story. And then, of course, you also need the tenacity of a weed.

Listen to Rebecca read her short-story "The November Story" here. She will have a story in the Best American Short Stories collection which is out in early October and in a third of the way through her second novel, The Happensack.

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  1. Jess Bloom Jess Bloom says:

    amazing amazing. i’m so glad you interviewed her, mish.

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